Beyond Schools: Into the world of Homeschooling

First published in the Sarvodaya magazine, Feb 2016 edition.


I had first met David H.Albert during the Sarvodaya Day conference organized at Gandhigram University to commemorate the death anniversary of the veteran Sarvodaya leader, Jagannathan. David stood out in the crowd, not just because of his foreign looks but also due to his contagious energy and exuberance. When I got introduced to him, he said he was travelling across the world, trying to ensure safe drinking water for everyone. He had also been involved closely with the LAFTI movement, for many years. Later, I came to know of his other side: an active proponent and writer on homeschooling. He has penned five books on homeschooling and alternative education. I had the chance to read his book, ‘Dismantling the Inner School – Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Abundance’.

Disillusioned with the current education system, there are many experiments happening in that space in India, and across the globe. Many alternate schools have been setup in various cities and villages. However, they are but a tiny drop in the ocean. There are other parents who have embraced homeschooling for a variety of reasons. It is important that the criticism of mainstream education and this phenomenon of homeschooling needs to be understood better. David Albert’s book is a step in that direction.

For readers of this magazine, homeschooling, in itself, is not a new concept. Gandhi homeschooled his children; he famously supported Narayan Desai, the son of his trusted aide, Mahadev Desai, in his wish to be homeschooled. His own criticism of the education system led to the formulation of Nai Talim.

David demystifies the idea of homeschooling systematically, in a modern context.

As a homeschooling parent myself, of a seven-year old daughter, I found many parts of the book very thought-provoking and useful. David has put the motto of the Royal Society on the first page – “Nullius in verba” (“Take no man’s word for it” – I am reminded of the popular Thirukkural conveying a similar meaning, ‘எப்பொருள் யார்யார்வாய் கேட்பினும் அப்பொருள்/ மெய்ப்பொருள் காண்ப தறவு.’) I approached the work of David, applying the rigour of this motto, of not taking his word for it. To the author’s credit, it was, for the most part, very difficult not to take his word.

Another quotation that adorns the first page is that of subjiyay, the late spiritual leader of the Skokomish tribe: “Do not teach all children the same thing, or in the same way. For if you do so, they will learn that they do not need each other; and the world will split apart.” This, beautifully, sums up the spirit of the book, and the subject it has chosen to tackle.

The book, though not physically split so, can be seen to be divided into two parts. The first part consists the well-structured core, “Dismantling the Inner School”, and the second part comprises of a series of loosely linked jottings – with tips and anecdotes – on homeschooling, education and more.

In his introductory chapter, David quips, ‘the hardest thing about homeschooling is deciding to do it,’ and ‘once you start homeschooling with your son or daughter, you quickly discover that almost everyone seems to think the kids are fair game for testing, and that you are just inwardly begging for their advice.’ The person who offers the advice or does the ‘testing’, may have no clue about education. This is something that most homeschooling parents do face, and aspiring ones are likely to face. The public acceptance of the decision to homeschool is extremely difficult to procure, and homeschooling parents have to be prepared to weather the storm. David helps with the preparation. There is an inner school in all of us that needs to be dismantled before we embark on a different journey, and David identifies 15 crucial bricks that have to be knocked out first.

The bricks to be dismantled

Here is a short summary of the fifteen bricks that David says have to be dismantled:

Learning starts much before school and is a continuous process.
The fear that something important will be missed if we don’t attend school is over rated.
There are no special places, times or equipment for learning.
You are as much an expert as anybody when it comes to your children.
Learning cannot be sequential and scheduled. It happens in fits and starts.
There are no average children.
Socialization happens even outside age-restricted peer groups. School socialization teaches to obey and not question.
What you teach is not what they learn. Learning is a product of the activity of the learners.
Great enjoyment may even be found in activities we are not good at.
Learning doesn’t happen through accumulation of facts. But by wrestling with new theories of how the world works that help us make sense of the data, so we can throw the old theories out.
Learning is not only for kids. It is a family affair. For the few years you are with your children, turn your household into a learning community.
Learning is not all about individuals – i.e, the learning to be gained by an individual does not trump community intelligence.
There is no permanent record that will follow you forever. What I do in my seventh standard would follow me forever is false. The only permanent record is the one written on your child’s minds and hearts in the course of their life journeys.
Your life outcomes are not determined by how well (or poorly) you do in school.
School cannot fix everything and if things are not going well, the solution is not more of it.

David discusses each of these in detail, backing up his assertions with data, anecdotes and logic. Many of them resonated with my own personal experiences and learnings. I shall share a few here.

Brick one: Learning starts on the First day of School

Many of us do believe that education starts and ends at school. That could be the only explanation for so many hundreds of premium schools, which charge fees that are many times higher than the annual income of an average citizen. Farmers sell off their farm lands to send their children to ‘good’ schools and colleges. A friend recently posted that a school in Chennai has invited applications for LKG admission. Like you, I thought it was nothing unusual. Then I realized it was for the year of 2019. We have chosen to believe that the education for the unborn child, still in its mother’s womb, will start four years from now, after he/she enters a reputed school. How naive! I definitely believe that a substantial part of my daughter’s learning abilities and character were shaped much before she entered school. In fact, after joining school, there was a noticeable decline in her inquisitiveness. After three years in nursery schools, we reverted to homeschooling. The number of questions from her have been on the rise.

David challenges this importance assigned to schools. He writes, ‘regardless of our predilections or philosophies, kids started living and learning at the same time,’ and ‘you and your child don’t have to wait to get on the yellow bus. You are already on it.’

Brick three: There are ‘special’ places for learning, ‘special’ times and there is ‘special’ equipment

“Reading from a book is much less intriguing than the signs in a supermarket, or on the highway, or on the back of a cereal box. The math problems pale in comparison to figuring out the proportion of ingredients needed to bake a cake, or computing gas mileage,” says David, and adds that he is struck most of all by the people we didn’t meet at school.

It is always amusing to see how a child learns. Much of my daughter’s reading happens outside books. She loves to read road signs. She will pick the newspaper and read the headlines. She once read the title of a novel that I was reading, ‘நிலமென்னும் நல்லாள்’, and immediately identified the exact verse in Thirukkural where that phrase appears. She sees that a coin sinks in water and wood floats and wants to know all about floating. She keeps a bowl of water, with salt dissolved in it, in the sun and learns how salt is made.

The child is always alive to learning, and learning happens anytime, anywhere. We don’t need a special password-protected machine to dispense knowledge.

Brick five: If you don’t learn things on time and on schedule, it doesn’t count

This is an extension of the previous point. David asks a disturbingly pertinent question regarding the content and sequence of the lessons: ‘who made up this schedule and on what scientific principle was it based, exactly?’

Once we had visited Sevapur, the Gandhian community in Karur district, along with Dr.Markandan. Near the guest rooms, there was a tree with attractive red-coloured seeds. Our daughter started collecting those seeds, and arranging them in twos and threes. Voila! With a little prodding from me, she learnt the basics of multiplication. It was unplanned, and was surely, not part of the syllabus for her age.

Her learning never follows a pattern. At school, she had learnt a bit of English but had not reached the stage of reading on her own. After leaving school, we taught her only in Tamil for a whole year. At the end of the year, she, almost magically, one fine day, picked up a book and started reading fairly fluently in English, without any prodding from us. She may not, now, be able to do a lot of things that her peers in school do. But it doesn’t matter. She will eventually learn what she needs to, and wants to.

Brick Six: There are such creatures as average children

Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the terms correlation, regression towards the mean and popularized normal distribution and standard deviation. His work gave rise to the ‘Bell curve.’ He applied these set of statistics to human characteristics. For example, that height of humans would fall on bell curve. He applied this to human intelligence. He said intelligence is hereditary, and follows normal distribution.

I have observed the tyranny of the bell curve in the corporate setup. For long, bell curves have been the bedrock of performance appraisals. People have been rewarded and fired based on which part of the bell curve they fall on. It is only now that some companies have started escaping the firm grip of bell curves.

Applied to children, the concept of normal distribution is even more troublesome. There are no average children. Everyone is unique. I was teaching spelling to a boy from our neighborhood farm. He simply couldn’t remember the different spellings. But, asked to identify the various plants on our farm, he did that gleefully with great accuracy. With our daughter, it was the reverse. How can we classify the boy as average, as the school is most likely to do?

Brick eleven: Learning is for kids

“For the few years you are with your children, turn your household into a learning community,” is one of the important advices that David offers in his book.

As parents, we do not always have the answers for the innumerable questions that are asked by the child. It is a great opportunity for us to learn, and learn it right this time. I had to google and find out the exact reason for something as basic as why wood floats and iron sinks. My wife and I had no interest in astronomy before. Now we gaze the stars with our daughter, whenever we get a chance. We had never been to classical music concerts before. But we don’t miss an opportunity to go now. Our daughter learns Tamil Classical music (Thirumurai) from a teacher, who visits us at home. Inadvertently, that is a huge learning for us too, more in Tamil than music.

The child constantly challenges and spurs her parents to grow. For those who oblige, a new world unfolds.

Brick Twelve: Learning is all about individuals – i.e, the learning to be gained by an individual trumps community intelligence

David goes beyond the individual to take a social view in this section, and asserts that public education has not developed our capacities for participation in social and community life. We have become good when it comes to asphalt but we’ve gotten poor at caring for one another.

“In our dogged pursuit for individual excellence and our insistence on a singe standard for it, whereby we are expected to cultivate the same capacities at the same time, we have marginalized entire groups of people: children (who are not supposed to be seen outside of school), the aged, the unemployed, people who work with their hands or their backs or their as-yet-to-be-fully-realized artistic imaginations, those who stay home with their children, the infirm and the disabled are far removed from our community dialogue (and often from our democratic processes as well).”

Brick fifteen: School can fix everything and if things are not going well, the solution is more of it

David says, schools have become the chosen venue for interventions in the life of our communities far beyond their more narrowly defined educational purposes. He cites a research published in 2001, by Karl Alexander, a sociologist at John Hopkins University. Alexander followed 650 first graders and found that, after five years, children from low socio-economic class backgrounds, after starting with only a small deficit, were well behind those from higher ones. But he also found that cumulative classroom learning over the five-year period was virtually the same. The difference was a result of what happened to the reading scores of the two groups during summer vacations.

On that basis, it is asserted that keeping the kids (especially the poorer ones) in school would help bridge the gap. But rich kids gain most when they are not in classroom. So, the question should be what can be done, in their homes, families, and communities outside of school and instead of school to improve the quality of their living and learning environments.

This finding rings very true. Our schooling system in India is in worse shambles. There is a huge learning advantage that is gained by being born into the right economic background, in the right cities, and in the right castes. Schools, far from leveling the field, are exacerbating the problem by allowing vast differences in the quality of education and infrastructure.

Have tea and conversation

One of the biggest concerns around homeschooling is how to ensure that the child gets adequate social interactions. The interactions need not always be restricted to age-group peers. The solution that David offers for this is simple – to surround the children with conversation, not just with ourselves, but with interesting people from all walks of life. ‘Enrich your own life with conversation and it will rub off on the kids.’

This is another aspect that I can vouch for, from our experiences. Going to school would have deprived our daughter, who is usually reticent, of some wonderful interactions with some wonderful people with all sorts of talents and inclinations.

‘All men are created the same’

David draws a parallel between the industrial world and post-industrialization education. ‘Human beings – beginning with childhood – must be manufactured. They must have the same likes and dislikes, the same moral or political opinions, same moods, same reactions, so they can all be made, at the whims of our consumer culture makers, to twitch all the time. There is no experience, except of the manufactured variety.’

There is a profound truth in this observation too. Our education system is filling its students with profuse sameness, who go on to propagate that sameness in all spheres of life – making the same sort of software, consuming the same kind of food, building the same kind of buildings, aspiring for the same kind of lives, going for the same holiday destinations, and even making the same kind of art; and, ultimately demanding singularity in religion, culture, language and politics.

Curriculum of abundance

David lists down three scarcities that should alarm us.
Scarcity of attention: A teacher, however good, cannot be expected to know all her 30 students equally well. Therefore, our system takes a one size fits all approach.
Assumption of scarcity of time: A child is assumed to have a limited time for learning. Therefore, it is expected that a particular lesson has to be learnt at a particular point of time in her life. It does not matter that the child might find other things interesting at the point of time, or that she could learn that lesson well at a different point in time.
Scarcity of intelligence: Schools believe that the children cannot be trusted to learn or figure out anything on their own. ‘If it isn’t taught, it ain’t learned, and if it isn’t tested for, it ain’t worth knowing.’

David assures the homeschooling parents that they have abundance at their disposal: abundance of time, energy and potential.

Robins and Bluebirds

During the second month of his first grade, David and his classmates were separated into ‘Bluebirds and Robins’. Bluebirds were the ‘smarter’ kids, and the Robins the ‘average’ kids. There were other classifications too.  All Bluebirds used to sit together and read together. Robins used to separately sit and read together. The books for Bluebirds had words in them and Robins had only pictures. Bluebirds were 90% Jewish. They spent no time with Robins. In six years of ‘ability-tracked’ system, not a single Robin ever became a Bluebird, and vice versa, irrespective of the grades and performance. Soon the Robins fell out of their consciousness. A Bluebird was allowed a large creative space for personal initiative, but only in a system that rationed opportunities for others, i.e. Robins. All ‘Bluebirds go to college. Robins sometimes do.’ It was clear that Bluebirds meet more success in life than Robins. ‘Liberal or conservative or in-between, virtually all the politicians are Bluebirds. Certainly almost all the social service executives, and all the people in the think tanks. Bluebirds managed the global financial meltdown, and send soldiers (virtually all Robins) to war.’

In India, it must be reiterated, the unofficial segregation into Bluebirds and Robins happens right from the time a child is born or a school is chosen. The tendency to segregate children based on socio-economic strata is getting strengthened. Today, rich children can be seen exclusively in elite schools, and are taught by the best teachers, with the best infrastructure and ideal teacher-student ratios. Poor children can be seen in the government run schools, which, despite paying its teachers reasonably well, are typically under-staffed and are run in poor conditions. Children of poor parents, with higher aspirations, fare worse by sending their children to low-cost private English medium schools, which pay low salaries, overwork the teachers, and hence attract poor talent.

David, throughout his book is blunt, has no sacred cows, busts the myths around everything from the efficacy of measuring IQ to using phonics. David’s book is important, not just as a tome on homeschooling, but as a detailed critique on the current education system. The honest book does give rise to hard questions, including about homeschooling itself.

Concerns around homeschooling

My harshest criticism about the book is that it tends to romanticize homeschooling, without delving into its shortcomings and challenges. Even as we homeschool our daughter, we have some questions for which we have not got any convincing answers, including from this book.

Foremost among them is this: is homeschooling another form of education, possible only to the privileged? I tend to think so. Despite giving up the economic privileges to a large measure, personally, we still retain our social and educational privileges. I do think we are still in a far superior position than parents not as well educated (at school or outside) as us. Here I mean the bookish education. Of course, education means more than that. An illiterate potter may be able to pass the best pottery skills and the best culture to his kids. But, would they have the liberty and aptitude to make a different choice?  Wholesome academic education, aligned with emphasis on professional skills, places the children in a position to choose their vocation. In a caste dominated society like ours, with aspirations of the common man going beyond hereditary professions, it is important that everybody gets equal educational opportunities, and it is also important that such an education doesn’t alienate the children from their strengths and surroundings. Homeschooling, to my mind, doesn’t serve this social purpose on a mass scale. One of my biggest criticisms about most alternate schools, barring a few notable exceptions, is that they are elitist in nature. While, a balanced education is provided to the students, the balance is badly offset by the lack of socio-economic diversity among the students. This will leave the students of such schools with a very skewed view of life. Homeschooling, while not necessarily elitist in nature, is, most often, possible only for a selected few.

Secondly, while non-peer socialization can happen during homeschooling, it is dependent on the parents, especially during the younger years of the child. For parents like us, leading a free life, who are able to have the child with one of us throughout the day, and also travel a lot, ensuring such non-peer interaction is easier; but for parents who go for traditional vocations in government or corporate workplaces, this luxury may not be possible. Also, for parents who lead a secluded life, homeschooling will deprive the children of precious company. ‘Tea and conversations’ are a must. Even for those of us, who claim to create abundant non-peer interactions, creating same age-group interactions is a challenge. I have observed that the child craves for both peer and non-peer interactions at different points of time.

Thirdly – a respected writer of serious literary merit pointed this out to me – a homeschooled child grows under the protection of the parents; the unlimited freedom that the child gets is simulated. Only when the child is exposed to the external world, independent of the parents, the child will be truly exposed to all the goodness and the cruelties of the world. Only then, the child will truly see the world with her own eyes, and will be shaped by what she sees. This, I am aware, is a highly controversial point of view. I cannot say that I, myself, fully agree with it, but it is the valuable view of an artist, which I’ll not ignore. David speaks of such exposure during the adolescent years of his daughters but at an younger age, if at all it is desirable, homeschooling may not serve that need.

These and a few other questions cast a shadow on the otherwise attractive and very natural way of educating a child.

In conclusion, in my personal opinion, homeschooling, at best, is an option available to a select few, who are disillusioned with the current education system. Taking into account, all the criticism mounted on mainstream education by David in this important work, we still need to find the right ways to impart the right education to the masses.

Book: Dismantling the Inner School – Homeschooling and the Curriculum of Abundance
Author: David H. Albert
Publisher: Hunt Press, Los Angeles
Year: 2011


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